The Beijing Cuckoo Project: Class of 2017

It’s been an eventful ten days for the Beijing Cuckoo Project Team.  After the elation of Flappy’s and Meng’s return to the breeding grounds, following monumental journeys of 32,000 and 26,000km respectively, there was little time to take a breath before beginning phase two of the Beijing Cuckoo Project.  The plan for this year was based on two aims.  First, to increase the sample of tagged cuckoos from Beijing and NE China to strengthen the dataset which would enable scientists to make more informed conclusions about the migration of cuckoos from East Asia.  And second, to build on the public engagement to reach more people in China and overseas about the wonders of bird migration.

It’s fair to say that this year has been challenging.  Over the last ten days or so the Beijing Cuckoo Team has been valiantly navigating all manner of unfortunate incidents including Chinese visa issues, the British Airways IT shutdown, a major forest fire in Inner Mongolia (where we had hoped to tag some of the larger ‘canorus‘ cuckoos) and a hospital visit for one team member, Dick Newell (thankfully, not serious)..

Dick Newell being sewn up at the local hospital in Yanqing after cutting his head on a low doorway.

Despite this, three Common Cuckoos (two females and one male) were fitted with tags at Yeyahu in Beijing.  They are all of the bakeri subspecies and all were fitted with the tiny new 2g tags from Microwave Telemetry.

The Beijing birds have been given names and are already famous..

The first, a female, was named by the students from the International School of Beijing (ISB). Three students from ISB, along with two teachers, came to Yeyahu and witnessed the setting up of the nets, the capture, tagging and release of the bird.  After a vote at school last week involving the whole year, the bird has been named 玉琳 (Yu-Lin). This means “precious jade in the forest”.

玉琳 (YuLin), a female, was the first Beijing Cuckoo to be fitted with a tag in 2017.
Students from ISB helped put up the nets ahead of the catching operation

The release of Yu-Lin was filmed by Chinese national television (CCTV) as part of a documentary on Beijing’s wildlife. The CCTV crew also managed to secure some fantastic footage of 梦之鹃 (Meng Zhi Juan) calling close by..!

The documentary will be shown on national television later this year and we’ll publish a link as soon as the programme is available online.

The second cuckoo, a male, was named by staff at Yeyahu Wetland Reserve. The name given is 小松 (XiaoSong) which means “small pine tree”.

小松 (XiaoSong), a male, was named by staff at Yeyahu Wetland Reserve.
Yeyahu Wetland Reserve is a wonderful setting. When here, it’s hard to believe one is in Beijing.

The third cuckoo, another female, was named by the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre after an online public vote. After thousands of votes from members of the public, the name chosen was 六月 (LiuYue) meaning “June”.

六月 (LiuYue), the third Beijing Cuckoo to be fitted with a tag in 2017.

Of course, being at Yeyahu, we were all hoping to catch a glimpse of 梦之鹃 (Meng Zhi Juan), one of the Beijing Cuckoos fitted with a tag in 2016.  After his marathon journey of more than 26,000km to Mozambique and back, Meng was photographed at Yeyahu on 20 May.  And, on 31st May, as we were catching the first Beijing Cuckoos of 2017, we were treated to several close encounters, including a magnificent fly-by just metres away in front of the students and teachers from ISB.

A wonderful moment: teacher Wayne Winkelman and students from ISB watch as Meng flies by.. Photo by Allison Wise.

It was wonderful to see and hear so many Cuckoos on the reserve and Meng looked fit and healthy as he interacted aggressively with other males and chased females in all directions.

Each of the three members of the Class of 2017 has its own webpage and their journeys will be added to the map on the dedicated Beijing Cuckoo Project webpage.

What will the next 12 months bring?  One thing is for sure – they will entertain, educate, surprise and inspire us…

Huge thanks to my fellow Beijing Cuckoo Project Team members, including Chris Hewson, Dick Newell, Lyndon Kearsley, Wu Lan and Robert and Robin Jolliffe.   The Beijing Cuckoo Project Team is extremely grateful to all the staff at Yeyahu Nature Reserve and the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre, especially Shi Yang, Wu Mengwei, Aodan Zhula, Zhang Yaqiong and Wang Bojun for their fantastic support and wonderful hospitality.

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The BTO’s Chris Hewson enjoying the local transport.

 

2016: What A Year!

Looking out of my apartment window on the first day of 2017, a blanket of toxic smog seems to drain all colour out of life and the perennial question question pops into my head – why do I live in such a polluted, congested place?

Header image: the view from my apartment at 1200 on 1 January 2017

The answer, of course, is the excitement and adventure of living in the capital city of the world’s most populous nation.  And when one considers the positives – the stunning biodiversity, the opportunity for discovery, the potential to make a difference and the wonderful people – the negatives are seen in context and they become far more tolerable.

Looking back, 2016 has been an astonishing year with many highlights, thankfully few lowlights, and progress made in some key conservation issues.  Together, they give me a genuine sense of optimism for the future.

January began with the unexpected discovery, by two young Beijing birders, Xing Chao and Huang Mujiao, of a small flock of the “Endangered” Jankowski’s Buntings at Miyun Reservoir.  This was the first record of Jankowski’s Bunting in Beijing since 1941 and, given the precipitous decline in the population of this poorly known species, a most unexpected find.  The fact they were found by young Chinese is testament to the growing community of talented young birders in Beijing.  There are now more than 200 members of the Birding Beijing WeChat group, in which sightings and other bird-related issues are discussed and shared. Huge credit must go to world-class birders such as Paul Holt and Per Alström who have been generous in sharing their knowledge of Chinese birds with the group. As well as the expanding WeChat group, there are now more than 400 members of the Beijing-based China Birdwatching Society (up from 300 in the last 12 months).  So, although starting from a low baseline, the increasing membership, together with the increase in the number of local birdwatching societies, such as in Zigong in Sichuan, and the development of international birding festivals, such as in Lushun, Dalian, shows that there is the beginning of an upsurge in the number of young people interested in birdwatching.  That is a positive sign for the future of China’s rich and unique avifauna.

In tandem with the growth in birding is the emergence of a number of organisations dedicated to environmental education across China.  Given the relative lack of environment in the Chinese State Curriculum, there is high demand amongst many parents for their children to develop a connection with nature.  I’m fortunate to work with one such organisation – EcoAction – set up and run by dynamic Sichuan lady, Luo Peng.    With a birding club for Beijing school kids, a pilot ‘environmental curriculum’ in two of Beijing’s State Schools and bespoke sustainable ecotourism trips to nature reserves for families and schools, Peng deserves great credit for her energy and vision in helping to change the way people interact with the environment.  I am looking forward to working with her much more in 2017.

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Luo Peng in her element – with local children in Hainan

After the boon of seeing Jankowski’s Buntings in Beijing, a lowlight in late January was the desperately sad passing of a much-loved mentor and friend, the inspirational Martin Garner.  Martin fought a brave and typically dignified and open, battle with cancer.  I feel enormously lucky to have met Martin and to have corresponded with him on many birding-related issues.  His wisdom, positivity and selfless outlook on life will be missed for years to come and his influence continues to run through everything I do.

Much of the early part of the spring was spent making the arrangements for what has been, for me, the highlight of the year – The Beijing Cuckoo Project. Following the success of the Beijing Swift Project, the results of which proved for the first time that Swifts from Beijing winter in southern Africa, the obvious next step was to replicate the British Trust for Ornithology’s Cuckoo Tracking Project in China.  We needed to find Chinese partners, secure the necessary permissions, raise funds to pay for the transmitters and satellite services, and make the logistical arrangements for the visit of “Team Cuckoo”.  At the end of May, everything was set and the international team arrived in Beijing.  Together with the local team, we caught and fitted transmitters to five Common Cuckoos, subsequently named by Beijing schoolchildren and followed via a dedicated webpage and on social media.  We could not have wished for a better result.  Three of the five are now in Africa,  after making incredible journeys of up to 12,500km since being fitted with their transmitters, including crossing the Arabian Sea.  As of 1 January, Flappy McFlapperson and Meng Zhi Juan are in Tanzania and Skybomb Bolt is in Mozambique.

Skybomb Bolt, the Beijing Cuckoo who made landfall in Africa on 30 October 2016.
Skybomb Bolt, the first Beijing Cuckoo to make landfall in Africa on 30 October 2016.
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The migration routes, and current positions, of the Beijing Cuckoos, 1 January 2017.
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Pupils at Dulwich International School broke into spontaneous applause after hearing that SKYBOMB BOLT had made it to Africa…

This Beijing Cuckoo Project has combined groundbreaking science with public engagement.  With articles in Xinhua (China’s largest news agency), Beijing Youth Daily, China Daily, Beijing Science and Technology Daily, India Times, African Times and even the front page of the New York Times, these amazing birds have become, undoubtedly, the most famous cuckoos ever!  Add the engagement with schools, not only in Beijing but also in other parts of China, and the reach and impact of the project has been way beyond our wildest dreams.  I’d like to pay tribute to everyone involved, especially the Chinese partners – the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre, China Birdwatching Society and the staff at the tagging locations (Cuihu, Hanshiqiao and Yeyahu) – who have all been brilliant, as well as the BTO’s Andy Clements and Chris Hewson for their vision and sharing of expertise and the sponsors – Zoological Society of London, Oriental Bird Club, British Birds Charitable Foundation and BirdLife International.  Finally, a big thank you to “Team Cuckoo”: Dick Newell, Lyndon Kearsley, Wu Lan, Susanne Åkesson, Aron Hejdstrom, Geert De Smet, Gie Goris and Rob Jolliffe.  You can follow the progress of the Beijing Cuckoos here.  All being well, Flappy, Meng and Skybomb will return to Beijing by the end of May.

In 2017 we are planning to expand the Beijing Cuckoo Project to become the CHINA Cuckoo Project, which will involve tagging cuckoos in different locations across the country.  More on that soon.

As well as being privileged to have been part of such a groundbreaking project, I have been fortunate to be involved with some exciting progress on some of the highest priority conservation issues, working with so many brilliant people, including Vivian Fu and Simba Chan at Hong Kong Birdwatching Society/BirdLife.  The plight of shorebirds along the East Asian Australasian Flyway is well-known, with the Spoon-billed Sandpiper the “poster species” of conservation efforts to try to save what remains of the globally important intertidal mudflats of the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay.  More than 70% of these vital stopover sites have been destroyed already through land reclamations and much of the remaining area is slated for future reclamation projects.   Scientists, including an ever greater number of young Chinese such as Zhu Bingrun, now have the evidence to show that the population declines of many shorebird species, some of which are now classified as “Endangered”, can be attributed in large part to the destruction of the vital stopover sites in the Yellow Sea.  After meeting world-leading shorebird expert, Professor Theunis Piersma, in Beijing in May and arranging for him to address Beijing-based birders with a compelling lecture, it’s been a pleasure to support the efforts of international organisations such as BirdLife International, the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP), led by Spike Millington, IUCN, UNDP and The Paulson Institute as well as local NGOs such as Save Spoon-billed Sandpiper and 山水 (ShanShui) in their interactions with the Chinese government to try to encourage greater protection for, and sustainable management of, the remaining intertidal sites.  One of the pillars of the conservation strategy is to nominate the most important sites as a joint World Heritage Site (WHS) involving China and the Koreas (both North and South).  This would have the advantage of raising awareness of the importance of these sites to those in the highest levels of government and also requiring greater protection and management of the sites.  I am pleased to say that, due to the hard work of these organisations, much progress has been made and the Ministry of Housing, Urban and Rural Development (MoHURD), the ministry responsible for WHS nominations, is now positively taking forward the suggestion and working on the technical papers required to make a submission to the State Council for formal nomination.  Special mention should be made of John MacKinnon, whose expertise, network of contacts in China and enthusiasm has made a big difference, to Nicola Crockford of RSPB and Wang Songlin of BirdLife International for their diplomatic work to create the conditions for the WHS issue to come to the fore, to David Melville, who recently delivered a compelling presentation covering a lifetime of shorebird study, to MoHURD at a workshop convened by ShanShui, and to Hank Paulson who, through the publication of the Paulson Institute’s “Blueprint Project” and his personal engagement at a very senior level with Provincial governors, has secured a commitment from the Governor of Hebei Province to protect the sites in his Province highlighted in the Blueprint.  These are significant advances that, although far from securing the future of China’s intertidal mudflats, have significantly improved the odds of doing so.

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Professor Theunis Piersma delivers his lecture to Beijing-based birders at The Bookworm, Beijing, in May 2016.

China’s east coast hosts the world’s most impressive bird migration, known as the East Asian Australasian Flyway.  That flyway consists of not only shorebirds but also many land birds and it is this concentration of migratory birds every spring and autumn that attracts not only birders but also poachers.  This year has seen several horrific media stories about the illegal trapping of birds on an industrial scale, primarily to supply the restaurant trade in southern China where wild birds are considered a delicacy.  Illegal trapping is thought to be the primary cause of the precipitous decline in the population of, among others, the Yellow-breasted Bunting, now officially classified as Endangered.

A distressed-looking male Yellow-breasted Bunting, now officially an endangered species after years of persecution.
A distressed-looking male Yellow-breasted Bunting in a cage adjacent to some illegal nets, designed to act as a lure.  Now officially an endangered species after years of persecution.

It would be easy to be depressed by such incidents but I believe there are two developments that provide optimism for the future.  First, although the legal framework is far from watertight, the authorities are now acting, the incidents are being reported in the media and the culprits are receiving, at least in the largest scale cases, heavy punishments.  And second, these cases are being uncovered by volunteers, groups of mostly young people that spend their free time – weekends and days off during weekdays – specifically looking for illegal nets and poachers at migration hotspots.  They work with law enforcement to catch the culprits and destroy their tools of the trade.  These people are heroes and, although at present it’s still easy for poachers to purchase online mist-nets and other tools used for poaching (there are ongoing efforts to change this), it’s a harder operating environment for them than in the past.  Big change doesn’t happen overnight but the combination of greater law enforcement, citizen action and media coverage are all helping to ensure that, with continued effort and strengthening of the legal framework, illegal trapping of migratory birds in China is on borrowed time.

Another conservation issue on which progress has been made is the plight of Baer’s Pochard.  The population of this Critically Endangered duck has declined dramatically in the last few decades, the reasons for which are largely unknown.  However, after 2016 there is much to be optimistic about.  First, there are now dedicated groups studying Baer’s Pochard in China, including population surveys, study of breeding ecology and contributing to an international action plan to save the species.  These groups are working with the UK’s Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, EAAFP and others to build a knowledge base about the species, raise awareness and develop concrete steps to conserve the species at its remaining strongholds.  A record count of 293 birds in December at the most important known breeding site in Hebei Province (Paul Holt and Li Qingxin) is a brilliant end to a year that will, hopefully, be a turning point for this species.

On a personal level I was extremely lucky, alongside Marie, to experience a ‘once in a lifetime’ encounter with Pallas’s Cats in Qinghai and, just a few days later, two Snow Leopards.  Certainly two of my most cherished encounters with wildlife.

So, as I glance out of my window again, I realise that a few days of smog are a small price to pay to be part of the birding and conservation community in China.  As 2017 begins, I have a spring in my step.

The Beijing Swift Project 2016

On Saturday “Team Swift” undertook the next stage of the Beijing Swift Project at the Summer Palace, here in Beijing.  The Chinese “catching team”, led by Professor Zhao Xinru, was on site at the inhuman hour of 0230 to set up the nets and, by the time I arrived at 0400 with the Europeans, there were already a couple of birds waiting to be tagged.

Setting up the nets at 0230 at The Summer Palace.
Setting up the nets at 0230 at The Summer Palace.  All photos by Zhang Weimin.

This year was another hugely successful operation involving more than 60 people, all volunteers, organised into highly efficient teams by the China Birdwatching Society.  From Europe there was Chris Hewson (BTO), Dick Newell and Rob Jolliffe (Action For Swifts), Lyndon Kearsley, Geert De Smet and Gie Goris (Belgium) and Susanne Åkesson and Aron Hejdstrom from Lund University.

Ms Fu Jianping, President of the China Birdwatching Society retrieves a Swift from the net.
Ms Fu Jianping, President of the China Birdwatching Society retrieves a Swift from the net.
The "management" team, logging and distributing the Swifts to the various banding teams
The “management” team, logging and distributing the Swifts to the various banding teams
Susanne and her team of Chinese volunteers fitted an incredible 25 loggers to Swifts.
Susanne and her team of Chinese volunteers fitted an incredible 25 loggers to Swifts.
The BTO's Chris Hewson preparing the harnesses for the Swifts' "backpacks"
The BTO’s Chris Hewson preparing the harnesses for the Swifts’ “backpacks”
The "biometrics team" weighed and measured the Swifts.
The “biometrics team” weighed and measured the Swifts.
Professor Liu Yang oversaw the blood sampling, which will enable analysis of DNA.
Professor Liu Yang oversaw the blood sampling, which will enable analysis of DNA.
Wu Lan (left) led the "data downloading team", capturing the data from birds fitted with loggers in previous years.
Wu Lan (left) led the “data downloading team”, capturing the data from birds fitted with loggers in previous years.
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Fu Jianping releases a swift fitted with a data logger.
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It was brilliant to see so many young volunteers involved..
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Action For Swift’s Dick Newell, whose generosity enabled the project to get off the ground, releases one of the Swifts.
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A great moment. Leighton (right) was recently engaged to his partner and, together, they released two of the Swifts..

We succeeded in catching 10 birds with geolocators fitted in the previous 2 years. Nine of these had good data, six from birds tagged in 2015 and three from birds tagged in 2014.  Two of these we had caught in 2015, but one was a new bird carrying 2 years worth of data.  So we now have 23 complete tracks, 14 of the 2014/15 migration and 9 of the 2015/16 migration.

Preliminary analysis shows the birds doing similar things in the 2 migrations – ie migrating to and from southern Africa using a route north of the Himalayas.  It’s one of the most incredible migrations of any bird and to think they do it without landing is awe-inspiring…
A typical track of a Beijing Swift based on preliminary analysis of the data captured today.
A typical track of a Beijing Swift.
We also succeeded in fitting 46 new loggers of various types: GPS loggers, loggers with accelerometers and pressure sensors, as well as some more light level geolocators.  These should give us more valuable information in 2017.
Once again, it was a real privilege to be part of this incredible project… a project that is not only contributing to scientific discovery and facilitating superb collaboration between scientists and volunteers from China and Europe but also engaging the public about these amazing birds and their incredible migrations.
Huge thanks to Wu Lan for, again, being the spider at the centre of the web, to Dick, Lyndon, Chris, Rob, Geert, Gie, Susanne and Aron for their valuable contributions to this project and, most of all, to the many young Chinese volunteers who worked so well together to make this year’s catching such a success.